Columns » Jay Barth

Romney loss a Huckabee win

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In the immediate aftermath of Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin's infamous comments regarding the impossibility of pregnancy from "legitimate rapes," one person could have immediately pushed Akin from his race.

Instead, while nearly every high-profile Republican made the case for Akin to leave the race during that 36-hour window following the comments, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee locked in his support for the damaged nominee. Huckabee had such power over Akin's fate because Akin had ridden the endorsement of the former governor and present Fox News talking head to his surprising victory in a close primary. In the days before the vote, Huckabee's face was omnipresent on the TV stations of southern Missouri touting Akin's commitment to conservatism. Without large margins in those Springfield and Joplin media markets, Akin would have never won the nomination.

In reiterating his support for Akin, Huckabee not only attempted to explain away Akin's opposition to a rape exception in abortion bans (if not the problems with Akin's exact phrasing) but also began what has become a drumbeat of criticism by Huckabee of the Republican establishment that lined up to push Akin from the race. In a series of communications, Huckabee trashed the "party bosses" for leaving Akin "behind on the political battlefield."

"And if the NRSC and RNC and the money-rich PACS won't help Todd Akin get us to the majority, then we'll do it without them," Huckabee preached in an e-mail to supporters late last week.

If Mitt Romney were to lose the current presidential race, that anti-Establishment drumbeat would become even louder. The message that Huckabee would begin to pound is that the GOP establishment had its chance in the 2008 and 2012 cycles and that "moderates" John McCain and Romney failed to deliver. The only path forward for the party is to accept the call of rank-and-file Republicans "who have faithfully knocked doors, made calls, and made sacrificial contributions to elect Republicans" to nominate a "true conservative" like himself in 2016 instead of one of the more moderate figures — Jeb Bush or Chris Christie — promoted by the establishment.

Huckabee would not be alone in trying to coalesce anti-establishment support for a 2016 run. He would likely be joined by Sarah Palin and freshman GOP Sen. Rand Paul in a race to be the leader of the faction that was splintered among flawed candidates in the 2012 nomination battle. Those two competitors for the anti-establishment vote are both disadvantaged against Huckabee, however. While Palin's brand has soured since 2008 through a series of self-inflicted wounds of word and deed, Huckabee's has continued to increase in value; it is not accidental that it is Huckabee rather than Palin that will receive a place on the podium at the Republican National Convention this week. While Rand Paul is somewhat less self-marginalized than his father, he has yet to prove his durability as a campaigner or his ability to move audiences with his personality.

As he showed during his Arkansas days, Huckabee is at his best when running against elites — be they the "country clubbers" within his own party or the Democratic "political machine" that he argued continually thwarted his reformist policies in Arkansas. As Huckabee put it in his classic us versus them style, "I'm not popular among the Little Rock elite, but out there in real Arkansas, people like honesty." From his triple-wide on the Mansion grounds to his grandstanding on "covenant" marriages, Huckabee continually showed himself to be a master of the theatrics and the rhetoric of conservative populism.

In 2008, Huckabee rode his conservative message to a surprisingly strong victory over Romney in the Iowa caucuses. He lacked the access to resources and the campaign infrastructure to carry him past that small state. With two straight presidential defeats, that playing field would be shifted in a direction much to the advantage of Huckabee and his ilk.

Of course, if Mitt Romney ekes out a victory this fall, the Romney-Ryan team would have the GOP nominations locked up until Huckabee is past his political prime. If Romney goes down to defeat, however, Mike Huckabee will be incredibly well positioned for 2016.

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